ATHENS, Ga. -- For a while there, Georgia gave its fans reason to believe.
Facing top-ranked Kentucky as a heavy underdog Tuesday night, Georgia stood toe-to-toe with the mighty Wildcats and a packed house at Stegeman Coliseum was rocking.
“It was definitely fun to play,” said Georgia senior guard Dustin Ware, the most experienced member of the team. “It was one of the best crowds we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
But just when the Bulldogs started to believe they could compete -- and maybe even earn the program’s first win in 12 attempts against the nation’s No. 1 team -- Darius Miller and the Wildcats pulled the rug out from underneath them en route to a 57-44 victory.
Kentucky (20-1, 6-0 SEC) led 28-25 with less than four minutes remaining in the first half before Miller sparked a 10-1 run to close the half, scoring seven points through three consecutive possessions.
He finished with a game-high 19 points after scoring 13 in the first half as Kentucky opened a double-digit lead.
By halftime, it was apparent that the Wildcats had absorbed the Bulldogs’ best punch and still held a 38-26 lead, despite Georgia’s emotional showing on its home floor.
“I guess everybody got up for the game,” Georgia senior Gerald Robinson said of the home crowd’s support. “They were excited and yeah, we kind of rode that at the beginning.”
Kentucky brought everyone back to reality, however, with a stifling defense that held Georgia (10-10, 1-5) to 35 percent shooting and limited the Bulldogs to only three free-throw attempts.
“They might be the best defensive team in the league,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “It was hard for us to score certainly, but you’ve got to give Kentucky’s defense a lot of credit for that. That’s a very good basketball team.”
The Wildcats put the clamps on Georgia’s two best scorers, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Robinson, holding the pair to 6-for-25 shooting and 13 combined points. They came in ranked seventh and 12th in scoring in the SEC at 14.4 and 13.4 points per game, respectively.
Meanwhile, Kentucky used its considerable size advantage at essentially every position to build a dominant rebounding edge. The Wildcats outrebounded Georgia 41-26, with both Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis grabbing 11 boards. No Georgia player had more than five.
“When your two guard is as big as Miller is and then you have Gilchrist at the three and those guys are the size of power forwards, they just overpower you,” Fox said. “Then defensively the way they switch everything and always have a size advantage with their length and then certainly with Davis around the basket, such a great protector of the basket. So they have a lot of terrific pieces and they use them well together.”
Freshman forward Nemanja Djurisic paced Georgia’s offense early, scoring all 10 of his points in the first half as the Bulldogs still hung with the visitors. He shot only twice in a scoreless second half.
Djurisic was one of two Bulldogs in double figures, with Ware scoring a team-high 12 points.
The Bulldogs now enjoy their first open weekend since final exams, with their next game coming Feb. 1 against Auburn.
Fox said Monday that the break comes at a good time as he was concerned about his team’s young players beginning to fatigue as they hit the heart of their league schedule. Ware agreed with his coach that the break is much-needed in order to help the Bulldogs regroup after a disappointing start in SEC play.
“We’ve got a couple guys who’ve really been banged up,” Ware said. “Marcus [Thornton, who missed several weeks with a knee injury] is just getting back in rhythm, so I think it’s definitely big for us, just letting everybody get their feet back under them and just keep rolling.”